NHL teams take long route to U.S., avoiding COVID-19 testing

NHL teams take long route to U.S., avoiding COVID-19 testing
Los Angeles Kings' Carl Grundstrom (91) looks on as Edmonton Oilers' Evander Kane (91), Connor McDavid (97) and Jesse Puljujarvi (13) celebrate a goal during third period NHL playoff action in Edmonton on Wednesday, May 4, 2022.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs took their time getting to their U.S. destinations ahead of Game 3 in their first-round playoff series.

Instead of taking a charter flight directly to California, the Oilers opted to fly to Vancouver after their Game 2 win on Wednesday, spend the night in a hotel, then bus over the border on Thursday morning before flying from Bellingham, Wash., to California.

The Leafs also crossed into the U.S. by bus and flew to Tampa, Fla., out of Buffalo, N.Y. on Thursday.

Asked about the decision, Toronto forward Jason Spezza responded with a laugh.

“That’s above my pay grade,” the 38-year-old said. “I get on the bus when they tell me to get on the bus. I get on the plane when they tell me to get on the plane.

“As long as it all leads to the arena, I’m pretty happy.”

The unique journeys allowed both teams to avoid COVID-19 testing. Current restrictions require people entering the States via air to provide a negative COVID-19 test, something not required at a land border crossing.

Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said the longer travel day was the smartest move for his group and that players were involved in choosing the itinerary.

“I think what you want to do is you want to make the best decision possible for your group and was one that we gave a lot of thought to,” he said Friday night after the team arrived at its hotel in downtown L.A. “It was executed excellently today and we’re getting ready for Game 3 tomorrow.”

The Oilers have the only unvaccinated player in the NHL playoffs: Josh Archibald, whose cardiologist was able to secure a medical exemption for the 29-year-old forward because of a heart condition known as myocarditis.

Archibald played in only eight games during the regular season but is available in the playoffs on either side of the border and was in the lineup for Game 2 when Edmonton evened its series against the Kings.

The team has not decided whether it would make the same journey if the series returns to California for a Game 6. The best-of-seven matchup is currently tied at 1-1.

The Leafs and Oilers aren’t the only pro sports teams choosing to bus over the border amid the current COVID rules.

During their first-round NBA playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, the 76ers bused to Buffalo before continuing on to Philadelphia.

The Blue Jays utilized the same travel strategy on their current swing to Cleveland and on their previous road trip to Houston. The club said it will decide on a “trip-to-trip basis” whether to bus over the border.

The Red Sox reportedly returned to Boston via bus after a four-game series in Toronto at the end of April.

“The biggest thing was really just following the lead of the NBA and MLB teams that have been making that trip across the border,” said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “I think the biggest thing at this point of the year really is just to do all that we can to avoid any false positives or anything like that might come up that would impact our group.”

The alternate arrangements were “a little bit of a wrinkle,” but the team arrived in Florida at about the same time it would have via a direct flight, said Leafs captain John Tavares.

“We’ve heard of some teams in other sports doing it,” he said. “We talked about last week a little bit amongst the group and just trying to do everything we can to give us the best chance for success.”

Other NHL teams are believed to have travelled to Bellingham following games in Vancouver near the end of the NHL‘s regular season.

Both the Kings and Lightning took direct flights home.

“We didn’t cross the border by bus,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Friday before Game 3 against Toronto. “Everybody passed the tests.”

The Calgary Flames took a charter directly to Dallas Friday morning ahead of Game 3 against the Stars on Saturday.

Woodcroft said his group wasn’t troubled by the unique logistics.

“I thought it was a really well-executed day. It’s a credit to the people that put it together with our travel department,” he said. “The players are energized by how we travelled and being in the California sunshine.”

The travel day was “a little different than normal,” said defenceman Evan Bouchard.

Asked whether he had exhausted Netflix during his ample time in transit, he smiled.

“I’m not too much of a Netflix guy,” Bouchard said. “No, I’m more of an Xbox player.”

With files from Joshua Clipperton in Tampa and The Associated Press.


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